What does poverty look like?
To most people, it doesn’t look like a young, multi-lingual woman who’s successfully raising a family and getting published in the Huffington Post.
But one viral post about how “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain,” two weeks, $60,000, and a flurry of media skepticism later, Linda Tirado has directly confronted her critics about how important appearance can be in the making or breaking of a successful member of society: in her case, the appearance of her teeth.
Last month Tirado wrote a moving comment on Gawker that went viral when it was published as a column in the Huffington Post. “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense” outlined some of the ways in which poverty turns even the most resilient citizens into defeatist, hand-to-mouth outliers. Tirado detailed the difficulty of finding places to sleep without being able to hand over a credit card, even at roach-ridden motels. She also described the feedback loop of being too poor to indulge in beauty regimes, which hurt her chances of getting a job that would enable her to afford them:
I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm,” which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov.”… I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.
Tirado’s story moved many readers, but it also attracted plenty of skeptics. As criticism poured in for Tirado to explain why, if she was so poor, she was able to freely blog on the Internet, Tirado wrote a second article in the Huffington Post to clarify that “I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now,” and that she was currently “reasonably lower working class.”
Buoyed by support, Tirado launched a GoFundMe project to write a book about her experiences, which promptly raised over $60,000. This fueled even more backlash. Mediaite and the conservative National Review both called Tirado’s story a hoax. Slate hedged that even though Tirado’s story was true, as The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg had earlier reported, she was merely “downwardly mobile,” rather than truly “impoverished.”
A focal point of much of the criticism of Tirado involved a car accident she suffered years ago which damaged her teeth. Tirado received no dental care for the injury and wrote of the longterm damage that going without major surgery to repair the damage had done, not only to her mouth, but to her career prospects. Many reporters and onlookers who questioned her story focused on this part of the story with the most intensity. Among the most vituperative was Angelica Leicht, a blogger for the Houston Free Press who attempted to debunk Tirado’s story by questioning how a successful campaign worker could be that poor, and pointing out that her teeth appeared fine in later photos:
She doesn’t need you to pay her dental bill; she wants you to pay her dental bill. There’s a difference. And it appears that may not even be necessary; those “rotten” teeth? They appear just fine in a 2004 political blog where her head shot is used, well after that “car accident” at 19 years of age. Her recent appearance on HuffPo Live, which was strange at best, seems to confirm that suspicion. Rotten teeth they are not.
Monday, Tirado responded with a video in which she reveals large gaps between her teeth where some are missing, and discusses the extent of the damage to her mouth. “I would like to talk about the fact that this is not a medical issue,” she said, “as though an infection that is so close to your brain could be considered anything but.”
Tirado pointed out that she sometimes has to excuse herself in mid-conversation to go fix her teeth before they fall out. Though her video is long, many YouTube viewers felt grateful to her for articulating an experience that few people ever talk about or know how to discuss. Recently on MetaFilter, a user asked for advice about how to get their significant other to open up about his possible teeth damage, something that Tirado related to: “Your brain is never allowed to relax because you always have to keep in mind that you have to hide your teeth.”
Ultimately, whether you think Tirado is “impoverished” or just “downwardly mobile,” it seems her experience shows that the appearance of poverty and cosmetic defects can exacerbate a situation that leads to actual poverty.
It’s a message that seems to be resonating across economic lines.
Screengrab via YouTube